“Old” DC Comic Capsule Reviews

This Wednesday begins the huge re-launch of the entire DC Comics universe. While I remain cynical about their approach, I have to admit that I’m now more interested in DC than I have been for a few years. Looking over the titles I’ve been buying from them, I can see why: I’ve pretty much drifted away from their core comic line, and at this point, I’m just reading the one that are on the fringes of the company’s main stories. Even if the relaunch is only half-successful, it’s still a chance for DC to draw me back into the fold. I can see why they aren’t too worried about cynicism from people like me.

At this point, the final issues from all of their “old” titles have now shipped. Below the fold are capsule reviews of the few that I was still reading.

(I’m not covering Batman, Incorporated or Batman & Robin here. The former has only had two additional issues since I reviewed it last May, and the latter seems fairly unreviewable. The first half of Batman & Robin’s run was a vital part of Grant Morrison’s epic Batman saga, and was therefore uneven but often good, with a stunning conclusion that brought together more loose plot threads than I had known existed. The second half of that comic’s run has just been rotating teams of creators killing time, and I don’t really have any excuse for continuing to read it this long. There’s no good way to review that as one complete series.)

Gotham City Sirens #2 cover (because the #1 one was pretty uninteresting)Gotham City Sirens

This should have been another pointless, short-lived comic series. It’s the story of three Batman villainesses (Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy) who have no reason to work together other than selling comics with their sex appeal. But the title’s draw was Guillem March, who could handle the cheesecake art in a respectful, realistic, and creative way. Unfortunately, he slipped off the monthly schedule before long, and most of the series has been handled by less impressive artists.

The writing team changed frequently, too, with varying results. I’m not sure why I stuck with this series all the way through (though the hope that March would return stayed alive for a year longer than it should have), but I think that it was just because of the simple pleasure of monthly, serialized comics. I was reading very little mainstream, long-term stuff, and almost all of it tries to constantly raise the stakes and make their stories “important” in ways that don’t stick. Sirens was one of the few comics I saw that told simple stories without trying to take on more than it could handle. Maybe that’s not the highest ideal, but it’s a niche that very few titles fill.

I’m glad I stuck with it, though. A year ago, this title was turned over to unknown author Peter Calloway, and he was a great discovery. Though Sirens never became “important” or “great” (and really couldn’t have, given its editorial mandates), Calloway wrote consistently-good stories, giving each main character new depth and a few issues in the spotlight. He picked the comic up in the middle of a story arc and managed to make it feel as natural as if he’d been the one to plan it out, and most recently has tied up the story so as to make this one of the most satisfying of DC’s August endings.

I don’t think I can recommend this series now that it’s done. Most of the fun came from the simple, in-the-moment serialization, and if you want that, you’re better off finding a current series than a completed one. I can definitely tell you to watch for Peter Calloway when he turns up next, though: He writes good stories, has an excellent grasp of character, and can work within the confines of a shared universe.

Grade: C+

Relevance to the new DC: All three characters are splitting off into new titles, none of which look like they’re worth following. The Catwoman story is being drawn by Guillem March, but I’ve learned my lesson about expecting him to stick with a monthly story. Disappointingly, Peter Calloway isn’t working on any new DC stuff. He has hinted at an upcoming graphic novel, no details of which I can find. I’ll be watching.

Superboy #1 coverSuperboy

Since America’s only high-profile comics industry is superhero-centric, many of the most promising indie creators find themselves “promoted” to jobs that can’t use the unique elements that made them so successful in the first place. Jeff Lemire is one of the latest authors to go through this process. Though there’s no way he could ever make his loose artwork fit a DC title, it looks like he will succeed as a writer. Superboy usually felt like the generic work that any company author could have turned out, but Lemire managed to mix in the occasional character-building bit that elevated the title. These eleven issues built on existing and new characters to create a status quo that Lemire could have explored for years longer. Even though this story never felt quite as natural as Lemire’s Sweet Tooth or Essex County, I would have loved to see him explore this more.

Lemire’s superhero writing was a little uneven. The rushed series conclusion felt like little more than “it’s time for the heroes to win now”, and issue #3 is maybe the best example I’ve seen of comics mis-using in media res openings just because they seem cool. But in addition to the solid character work, see the way issue #6 turned a pointless crossover with the Reign of Doomsday Superman event into a worthwhile story.

This was a sometimes-decent story that ended before it could fulfill its potential, but at least it did give me faith in Lemire as a superhero writer.

Grade: C+

Relevance to the new DC: Superboy has a new title, but it looks like a total reboot at the hands of unimpressive creators. Happily, though, Lemire has two new series that play into his strengths as a “dark”, “weird” writer. I’m looking forward to his takes on both Frankenstein and Animal Man.

Secret Six #1 coverSecret Six

This story of villains for hire is pretty distasteful. It worked in small doses, such as the opening story arc, thanks to Gail Simone’s ability to write strong characters and the deliciously evil bad guys that she set against them. In the long run, though, I’m not sure why I kept reading this. As interesting as the main characters were, over time it became impossible to ignore the fact that they are just evil. Possibly even worse for the series is the constraints that the greater DC universe imposed on it. The main characters could never actually defeat the heroes, but the series couldn’t continue if they didn’t always get away. The squabbling villains were constantly at each other’s throats, but they always had to look past the betrayals and attempted murders so that the group can stay together. And despite the high-stakes action and their willingness to kill, they never managed to hurt the characters that appear in other DC stories. The result was a collection of gross, amoral stories that still felt strangely bloodless and ineffectual.

Grade: C-

Relevance to the new DC: Some of these characters are appearing in the new Suicide Squad title, which looks to have the same flaws as Secret Six and a worse creative team. Most of them are lying low for a while, though. Because Simone’s character work is truly good, they have all become too interesting to disappear forever. Meanwhile, Simone is working on two new series: Batgirl is an unfortunate reboot that undoes one of DC’s most interesting characters, and The Fury of Firestorm isn’t likely to last much longer than any of the past Firestorm titles. I’m not excited about either one.

Spirit #1 coverSpirit

The one bright point of DC’s awful First Wave line was the rebooted Spirit series that spun out of it. The title had just been rebooted a few years before, but had since grown confused and directionless. Of course, the fact that this character needs to be relaunched every few years is not a good sign. The problem is that The Spirit himself is a pretty simple noir archetype. What made him work was the brilliance of Will Eisner’s art and writing. Without that, most modern Spirit stories have had very little to make them stand out.

Given that, this latest series actually succeeded pretty well. True, it forgot about the innovations that First Wave imposed pretty quickly: The idea of The Spirit as a lazy but goodhearted man butting heads with a corrupt but well-meaning police commissioner was gone after a few issues, with those two working together against crime almost every step of the way. And while First Wave tried to “fix” Ebony, a classic supporting character who was an unfortunate product of more racist times, by turning him into a sassy grown-up woman, the new series apparently decided that a better fix was just to ignore the character.

However, this new Spirit did add some innovations of its own. Classic villains such as The Octopus were re-worked into a more complex and consistent status quo that could support ongoing stories. Also, it often managed to advance the larger plot through the means of one-shot comics that told smaller stories in the classic Eisner tradition. The Spirit himself was often not aware of how the bit characters who got a one-issue focus managed to impact his story.

The creative teams varied from time to time, but artist Moritat was present throughout most of the series. With his excellent storytelling abilities, he deserves to become a bigger star in comics soon. David Hine was the most frequent author. Though I’m not usually a fan of his, he handled the classic noir elements without embarrassing himself. That may not sound like high praise, but it’s actually a pretty good accomplishment. This series had several backups and one-shots where big-name authors tried and failed to tell stories that were more than pointless Eisner pastiches.

Grade: B-

Relevance to the new DC: Moritat will be the new author on All-Star Western, a relaunched Jonah Hex. I probably should have checked out that critically-acclaimed title long ago, and it seems like a natural fit for Moritat. I’ll be reading it. I don’t think Hine is signed up for any of the new series, but I expect to see him on fill-ins soon. The Spirit himself is not appearing anywhere in September, and after multiple relaunches that went nowhere, I expect DC to give this character a break for a few years. It’s too bad the current series wasn’t selling better, because I think they were finally starting to find a way to make him work in a modern superhero context.

Xombi #1 coverXombi

Xombi was a weird, “Vertigo-lite” series about a man infested with nano-machines that always heal him and occasionally act as a deus ex machina. However, this character (especially with his angst about his new post-human status) wasn’t the real focus of this series. Instead, it was an excuse for author John Rozum to throw all the crazy ideas he could think of together into an exhilarating mix. These ideas ranged from the silly (a Catholic super-strikeforce with codenames like “Nun of the Above”) to complex world-building (a hidden society of 27 floating strongholds) to just plain fun monsters. Each issue introduced more new concepts than most comics see in a year. Artist Frazer Irving’s stylized work made this look distinct from any other title out there. I find Irving’s flat, hyper-colored work to be best in small doses, and even one issue a month was possibly too much. But it was definitely a fun change from standard comics artwork.

This could have become a classic series, but it had the bad luck to start six months before the DC relaunch. What should have been an introduction to a crazy new world turned into a miniseries with a single story arc, and Xombi suffered with this change. At least it had time to bring its kick-off story to a satisfying conclusion, but it never got the chance to live up to its potential.

Grade: B

Relevance to the new DC: Xombi is disappearing, and in its place, Rozum is writing the much tamer Static Shock series. It comes from the same old Milestone imprint that spawned Xombi, but I don’t have much interest in it. Frazer Irving is supposed to get a single issue eventually on another “Vertigo-light” series, Shade, but I suspect that his style is too unusual to ever get another mainstream superhero title.

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